Literacy: A Glossary of Terms

Literacy: A Glossary of Terms

For decades, linguists, cognitive neuroscientists, educational psychologists, speech pathologists, and more, have been conducting research into the area of literacy and all the sub-component skills required to be literate. What this vast and growing body of research has clearly highlighted is the complexity associated with learning to read and write. Gone are the days where we believed exposing children to a language rich environment would magically teach them to read, as if they would absorb the skills by osmosis. Now, we unequivocally know that children need to be systematically and explicitly taught the process of reading and writing, and discussions of osmosis should snuggly stay within the realms of biology.

Currently, what exists in Australia, and in other countries around the world to varying degrees, is a research-practice gap, whereby the wealth of knowledge and evidence around reading and writing instruction is not being implemented in the classroom. This is through no fault of the teacher however. Governments continue to fund programs, such as Reading Recovery, which are not supported by evidence, and educational institutions refuse to update their course content to include the most up-to-date evidence. Teachers are not being taught the background theory or the skills required to effectively teach reading and writing. Instead, teachers have to rely on implicit knowledge to explicitly teach fundamental skills. This phenomenon has been dubbed by researchers as the ‘Peter Effect’; one cannot teach what one does not know.

The Peter Effect has been demonstrated on multiple occasions, both within Australia and internationally. A recent example was published in 2016 by Stark, Snow, Eadie, & Goldfeld. In this Randomised Control Trial (RCT), researchers used a questionnaire to assess Victorian prep teachers’ knowledge of language constructs and their self-rated ability and confidence in that knowledge. Overall, the researchers found that teachers were most likely to rate their ability to teach literacy skills (e.g., phonics, spelling, vocabulary) as moderate or very good, despite demonstrating limit knowledge. For example, only:

  • 38% of respondents were able to define phonemic awareness
  • 26% of respondents were able to identify a schwa
  • 26% of respondents could identify the number of morphemes in the word ‘bookkeeper’
  • 22% of respondents could identify a word with a voiced consonant digraph
  • 13% of respondents were able to identify a diphthong
  • 5% of respondents were able to identify the number of phonemes in the word ‘box’
  • 5% of respondents could identify a sentence containing a dependent clause

All of this information leads me to the crux of this blog; literary terminology. It is clear that there is a significant disconnect between research and practice; one of these gaps is in knowledge of key terminology used within the literacy literature. In a small attempt to bridge this gap, I have compiled a list of literacy-based terms (please note that this is not an exhaustive list). To put the terms into context, and to prevent it from feeling like you’re reading a dictionary, I have grouped like terms or related terms together by using three sub-headings: Phonological Awareness, Phonemic Awareness, and Phonics.

Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness (PA) is the ability to hear, browndown, and manipulate spoken language. PA is an umbrella term that encompasses a number of skills, such as rhyme detection and generation; alliteration; syllable identification; and, onset and rime. It starts at the simplest level, sentence level, and increases in complexity by thinking about the properties of language at the word, syllable, and phoneme level.

Sentence level tasks include identifying the number of words in a spoken sentence. For example, the sentence ‘I am happy’ has three (3) words; ‘I went to bed late last night’ has seven (7) words; and ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ has nine (9) words.

There are a number of word level tasks. These include: identifying long and short words, blending and segmenting compound words, identifying and generating rhyming words, alliteration, and onset and rime.

Long and short words

The ability to identify long and short words targets students’ ability to hear the boundaries of words. A short word is monosyllabic (one syllable) and a long word is multisyllabic (more than one syllable). For example, ‘cat’ ‘head’, and ‘bath’ are short or monosyllabic words, whereas ‘cauliflower’, ‘Australia’, and ‘furniture’ are all long or multisyllabic words. At this level, students may be presented with a word and be asked to identify if it is long or short.

Compound words

Compound words are two words that act as one; two whole words that function as a single unit of meaning. For example, ‘dollhouse’, ‘cornflour’, or ‘cupcake’. There are three subtypes of compound words: closed form, open form, and hyphenated. Closed form compound words occur when two words are joined to create a new meaning, such as ‘hotdog’, ‘cowboy’, or ‘softball’. Open form compound words are when two separate or distinct words create a new meaning when read together, such as ‘real estate’, ‘post office’, or ‘high school’. Hyphenated compound words are when two or more words are joined by a hyphen to create one meaning, such as ‘ice-cream’, ‘well-being’, or ‘merry-go-round’. Typically, when talking about PA, compound words are closed.

Compound word tasks can include joining (blending) words to create compound words. For example, air + plane = airplane, straw + berry = strawberry, and scare + crow = scarecrow. Alternatively, a task could be to breakdown (segment) compound words into individual words. For example, eggplant = egg + plant, afternoon = after + noon, or cobweb = cob + web.


Rhyme occurs when two words repeat the same end sound. For example, pig, big, and dig rhyme because they repeat the sound ‘ig’ at the end of the word. It is important to note that rhyming is purely an auditory task; it considers sound patterns, not letter patterns. For example, ‘bye’, ‘lie’, ‘fly’, and ‘high’ all have different spelling patterns, but share the same sound pattern of the long ‘i’ sound at the end of the word. In contrast, ‘hear’, ‘dear’, and ‘fear’ share the same spelling pattern to ‘bear’ and ‘pear’, but the first group ends in the sound ‘ear’ and the second ends in the sound ‘air’.

Rhyming tasks include rhyme identification and rhyme generation. In a rhyme detection task, students’ are asked to determine which word rhymes with a base word. For example, what rhymes with ‘hen’: ‘pen’ or ‘sheet’ (hen-pen). In a rhyme generation task, students are asked to think of words that rhyme with a base word(s). For example, what rhymes with ‘hop’ (mop, flop, chop, etc.). When practicing rhyming, both real and nonsense or pseudowords can be used. For example, ‘pattle’, ‘hattle’, ‘fattle’, and ‘mattle’ all rhyme, they repeat the same sound at the end of the word, but they are not real words.


Where rhyming focusing on the same sound at the end of the word, alliteration focusing on the same sound at the start of the word. For example, five, fat, furry, felines, alliterate because each word starts with a /f/ sound. As with rhyming, alliteration is an auditory task; it is based on sound patterns, not spelling patterns. For example, ‘soup’, ‘ceiling’, and ‘psychology’ all alliterate because they all start with a /s/ sound, but use a different spelling pattern. In contrast, ‘think’ and ‘there’ share the same spelling pattern of ‘th’, but one makes a voiceless (quiet) ‘th’ sound and the other makes a voiced (noisy) ‘th’ sound.

Onset and rime

Onset and rime are components of a word. Onset refers to the part of the word before the vowel, the initial consonant(s) and rime refers to the remaining string of letters, including the vowel. The following are example of onset and rime: ‘cup’ (c-up), ‘shop’ (sh-op), ‘tree’ (tr-ee), and ‘straw’ (str-aw). It is important to note that not all words have an onset. For example, ‘art’, ‘edge’, and ‘or’ do not have an onset. Also, words that have the same rime unit will rhyme, but not all rhyming words share the same rime unit. For example, ‘mat’, ‘cat’, and ‘rat’ all rhyme and share the rime unit -at. In contrast, ‘sleigh’, ‘ray’, and ‘frey’ all rhyme, but do not share the same rime unit.

Onset and rime activities involve blending the onset and rime, or segmenting a word into onset and rime. In a blending task, a student would be presented with an onset and a rime and be asked to identify the word it makes. For example, c + oat = coat, sw + eep = sweep, sh + ark = shark. In a segmenting task, a student would be presented with a word and asked to separate the word into onset and rime. For example, cash = c + ash, heart = h + eart, plant = pl + ant.

At the syllable level, tasks include syllable identification, syllable blending, and syllable manipulation.


A syllable is a unit of pronunciation that has one vowel sound, with or without surrounding consonants. It can form a whole word or part of a word. For example, ‘ant’, ‘from’, and ‘crown’ are single syllables and make up a whole word, whereas ‘ant’ in the following words makes up part of the word: ‘incomplete’, ‘insoluble’, and ‘intuition’. Words can either be monosyllabic (contain one syllable) or polysyllabic (contain more than one syllable). For example, ‘eat’, ‘help’, and ‘crunch’ have one syllable and are therefore monosyllabic, whereas ‘cyclone’, ‘kangaroo’, and ‘helicopter’ have two, three, and four syllables, respectively, and are therefore polysyllabic.

Syllable tasks include syllable identification and syllable manipulation. Syllable identification tasks require a student to identify the number of syllables in a word. For example, how many syllables (sometimes referred to as beats or drum beats) are in the words: ‘frog’ (1), ‘cleaning’ (clea-ning - 2), ‘crocodile’ (croc-o-dile - 3), and ‘caterpillar’ (ca-ter-pil-lar - 4). Syllable blending requires putting multiple syllables together to create a word. For example, cu + shion = cushion, flex - i - ble = flexible, po + wer + ful = powerful. Syllable manipulation tasks include identifying a specific syllable within a word. For example, what’s the second syllable in ‘firefighter’ (fight) or the last syllable in ‘astronaut’ (naut). It also includes adding or subtracting syllables. For example, add ‘im’ to the word ‘balance’ (imbalance),  what is ‘confusion’ minus the first syllable (fusion).

Phoneme level tasks involve manipulating sounds at the phoneme level. This sub-component of PA is referred to as Phonemic Awareness.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness falls under the umbrella of phonological awareness, but looks specifically at sounds at the phoneme level. Phonemic awareness tasks include initial, medial, and final sound identification; blending; segmenting; and, phoneme manipulations, such as adding, subtracting, substituting, and transposing phonemes.


A phoneme is an individual speech sound. It is the smallest meaningful unit of spoken language. In Australian English, there are 44 distinct phonemes. For example, there are two phonemes in the word ‘at’ /a + t/, three phonemes in the word ‘book’ /b + oo + k/, and five phonemes in the word ‘running’ /r + u + nn + i + ng/.

Sound identification

Sound identification is a critical phonemic awareness task. Students first learn to identify the initial (first) sound in a word, before learning to recognise the final (last) and then medial (middle) sounds. When first introducing sound identification words that follow a consonant-vowel-consonant or CVC pattern are typically used. For example, ‘fat’, ‘run’, ‘kid’. This keeps the task simple and ensures that all sounds can be easily modelled and identified.

In an initial sound identification task, students would be asked to identify the first sound in a word. For example: ‘sun’ /s/, ‘tap’ /t/, and ‘pin’ /p/. In a final sound identification task, students would be asked to identify the last sound in a word. For example: ‘pat’ /t/, ‘sip’ /p/, and ‘lid’ /d/. In a medial sound identification task, students would be asked to identify the middle sound in a word. For example: ‘lip’ /i/, ‘sap’ /a/, and ‘pot’ /o/.

Segmenting and Blending

Segmenting is the ability to break words or syllables down into individual phonemes. For example, the word ‘red’ can be broken into the three phonemes, /r + e + d/ and the word ‘crunchy’ can be broken into six phonemes, /c + r + u + n + ch + y/. Blending is the ability to join sounds together to make a word or syllable. For example, /m + oo + n/ = moon, /s + l + ee + p/ = sleep, and /s + t + r + ee + t/ = street. Segmenting and blending are important skills in learning to read and write as these are the skills used to ‘sound out’ unfamiliar or unknown words.

Phoneme manipulation

Phoneme manipulation is the most difficult aspect of phonemic awareness and it occurs when a phoneme in a word is changed to create a new word. This can be done by adding, taking away, substituting, or transposing a phoneme. Below are examples:

Addition: change ‘ip’ to ‘lip’ (+l), now change ‘lip’ to ‘slip’ (+s)

Subtraction: change ‘spin’ to ‘sin’ (-p), now change ‘sin’ to ‘in’ (-s)

Substitution: change ‘hat’ to ‘rat’ (h → r), now change ‘rat’ to ‘rap’ (t → p)

Transposition: change ‘lips’ to ‘lisp’ (move ‘p’ to the end), now change ‘lisp’ to ‘slip’ (move ‘s’ to the front)

An effective way to work on phoneme manipulation is to use coloured tokens or letter manipulates to complete tracking activities. In tracking activities a root word is provided and one aspect of the word is changed each step to create a new word or words. For example:

not → net → let → leg → peg → pig → wig → swig → wigs → wags → wag → mag → man → an


Phonics refers to letter-sound correspondence or the ability to link sounds (phonemes) to symbols (graphemes) and vice versa. Phonics also includes knowledge of sound representations or spelling patterns; knowledge that one sound can be represented by more than one letter or group of letters (grapheme).


A letter is the visual building blocks of written words, it is a symbol or character use to represent one or more of the sounds used in speech. In English there are 26 letters of the alphabet.


A grapheme is a letter or group of letters that represent a single phoneme (speech sound). For example, the sound ‘t’ can be represented by the graphemes: ‘t’ (ten), ‘tt’ (button), ‘th’ (Thomas), and ‘ed’ (ripped). A digraph is when two letters are used to make one sound. The common ones in english are ‘sh’ (sheep), ‘ch’ (chin), ‘wh’ (when), voiceless ‘th’ (thing), voiced ‘th’ (then), and ‘ng’ (sing). A trigraph is when three letters make one sound, such as ‘tch’ (match) or ‘igh’ (sigh). Grapheme knowledge is important because Australian English has 44 phonemes, which are represented by 250 graphemes that are made up of 26 letters. See the table below for examples of the most common phoneme-grapheme representations.



*IPA | English



Consonant: Plosives / Stops




p, pp

pen, puppy




b, bb

button, rubble




t, tt, th, ed

ten, cotton, Thomas, ripped




d, dd, ed

dad, add, filled




k, c, ch, cc, lk, qu, ck, x

kit, cat, Chris, account, folk, queen, rock, box




g, gg, gh, gu, gue

gate, haggle, ghost, guest, prologue

Consonants: Affricates




f, ff, ph, gh, lf. ft

fan, cliff, phone, rough, calf, often




v, f, ph, ve, vv

van, of, Stephen, five, skivvy














s, ss, c, sc, ps, st, ce, se

sun, loss, circle, science, psychology, listen, race, course




z, zz, s, ss, x, ze, se

zip, buzz, his, scissors, xylophone, maze




sh, ce, s, ci, si, ch, sci, ti

shin, ocean, sure, special, passion, machine, conscious, caption




s, si, z

pleasure, division, azure




h, wh

hat, who

Consonants: Fricatives




ch, tch, tu, ti, te

chalk, catch, future, caption, righteous




j, ge, g, dge, di, gg

jet, wage, giraffe, badge, soldier, exaggerate

Consonants: Nasals




m, mm, mb, mn, lm

man, hammer, lamb, autumn, calm




n, nn, kn, gn, pn

net, bunny, knew, gnome, pneumonia



ng, n, ngue

sing, link, tongue

Consonants: Approximants




w,wh, u, o

wet, when, queen, choir




y, I, j

yellow, onion, hallelujah




l, ll

like, ball




r, rr, wr, rh

rat, arrow, wrench, rhino

Vowels: Monophthongs – Long vowels




e, ee, ea, y, ey, oe, ie, i, ei, eo, ay

me, see, tea, tidy, monkey, phoenix, chief, ski, receive, people, quay




air, are, ear, ere, eir, ayer

hair, care, bear, where, their, prayer




ar, a, au, er, ear

car, father, laugh, sergeant, heart




or, oar, oor, ore, our, ar, aw, au, al, augh, ough, a

pork, soar, poor, snore, four, wardrobe, dawn, sauce, chalk, taught, bought, water




oo, ue, u_e, ui, ew, ou, o_e, ough, u

moon, blue, flute, fruit, flew, soup, move, through, super




er, ir, ur, ear, or, our, yr

her, birth, church, earth, world, journey, myrtle

Vowels: Monophthongs – Short vowels




i, e, o, u, ui, y, ie

in, England, women, busy, guild, gym, sieve




e, ea, u, ie, ai, a, eo,

ten, head, bury, friend, said, many, leopard,




a, ai

nap, plait




u, o, oo, ou

bug, monkey, flood, trouble




o, a, ho

hot, watch, honest




oo, ou, u, o

book, could, bush, wolf




er, our, re, ar, or, a, o

fixer, tumour, centre, dollar, tailor, above, cotton

Vowels: Diphthongs




ai, ay, a, ae, a_e,  ey, ea, eigh, aigh, au

maid, day, table, sundae, bake, prey, break, weight, straight, gauge




i_e, igh, ie, y, uy, ai, is, eigh

bike, fight, die, cry, guy, aisle, island, height




oi, oy, ouy

foil, toy, bouy




u_e, u, you, ew, iew, yu, eue, eau, eu

mute, unicorn, you, knew, view, queue, beauty, fued




oa, ow, o, oe, ough, eau

boat, bow, yo-yo, toe, dough, plateau




ow, ou, ough

how, bout, bough




eer, ear, ere, ier

deer, fear, here, cashier

*IPA: International Phonetic Alphabet


A consonant is a speech sound that is produced by air flowing through a total or partial occlusion of the articulators (lips, teeth, tongue, palate). Consonant sounds can either be voiced or voiceless. In a voiced sound, the vocal folds will vibrate, whereas in a voiceless sound the vocal folds will not vibrate.

Plosive / Stop

A plosive sound, sometimes referred to as a stop sound, is a consonant sound that is producing by stopping air flow using the lips, teeth, or palate, followed by a sudden release of the air. Plosives are considered ‘short’ sounds.


A fricative is a consonant speech sound that is caused by breath passing past a point of stricture (narrowing) causing turbulent air flow. Fricatives are ‘long’ sounds.


An affricate is a consonant speech sound that begins like a plosive, but then air is released like a fricative.


A nasal is a consonant speech sound that is produced by air flowing through the nasal cavity, opposed to the mouth.


An approximant is a consonant speech sound that is produced by bringing two articulators (tongue or lips) close to each other, without actually touching.


A vowel is a speech sound that is produced without obstructing or diverting the flow of air from the lungs. Vowel sounds are always voiced, the vocal folds will vibrate.


A monophthong is a pure vowel sound. The articulators (lips, teeth, tongue, palate) remain in a relatively fixed position throughout the production of the sound.


A diphthong is a vowel sound that is made by combining two vowels together. The articulators (lips, teeth, tongue, palate) start producing one vowel sound and finish as another.


The schwa, /ə/, is a weak, unstressed vowel sound that is pronounced ‘uh’. It is the most common sound in the English language and can be represented by any vowel when written. For example, ‘amazing’ (ə-MA-zing); ‘tenacious’ (tə-NA-cious); ‘replicate’ (RE-plə-cate); ‘cotton’ (COT-tən); ‘supply’ (sə-PLY); and ‘syringe’ (sə-RINGE). This is one reason that English is such a difficult language to learn. To further complicate things, the schwa is often not pronounced when speaking. For example, ‘camera’ (cam-ra), ‘chocolate’ (choc-late), and ‘different’ (dif-rent). Or, an extra schwa is inserted to break difficult consonant clusters or for emphasis. For example, ‘athlete’ (ath-ə-lete), ‘realtor’ (real-ə-tor), and ‘crazy’ (cə-ra-zy).

Literacy is made up of a tangle of intricate and convoluted terms, phrases, and words that are often vague, obscure, and poorly understood. Educators are expected to nimbly navigate through these tangles of terms with grace and poise, knowledge and understanding. But, in many cases they have not been given the roadmap required to inform their journey and are travelling in darkness. My hope is this blog can act as a lamp post that helps to illuminate at least part of the path to successful literacy instruction in the classroom.